As former Bosnian Serb military chief Ratko Mladic appeals this week against the verdict finding him guilty of genocide and other wartime crimes, BIRN examines the main reasons for his conviction and how the defence will push for acquittal.
By Haris Rovcanin
Nine years after Ratko Mladic was tracked down and arrested in Serbia, and eight years since the beginning of his trial, the former Bosnian Serb military chief is appealing at the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals in The Hague this week against his conviction for genocide and other crimes – some of the worst atrocities in Europe since World War II.
The UN court sentenced Mladic to life imprisonment in November 2017, finding him guilty of genocide of Bosniaks from Srebrenica in 1995, the persecution of Bosniaks and Croats throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina, terrorising the population of Sarajevo during the siege of the city and taking UN peacekeepers hostage.
Mladic’s appeal, asking for an acquittal or a retrial, will be presented on Tuesday, while on Wednesday the judges will hear an appeal from the Hague prosecution, which is calling for him to also be found guilty of genocide in six other Bosnian municipalities in 1992.
The presentation of the appeals has been postponed twice, first in March for Mladic to have a colon operation, and then in June because of the coronavirus pandemic. Some of the judges would have found it difficult to travel to The Hague from abroad while strict restrictions on travel were in place, while Mladic belonged to a ‘risk group’ because of his health and age.
The former Bosnian Serb Army general, who is now 77, has had several serious medical problems while in detention in the Netherlands and has suffered two strokes and a heart attack. His defence has repeatedly but unsuccessfully called for him to be hospitalised, claiming that his health is deteriorating.
Mladic accused of the gravest crimes
In July 1995, before the end of the Bosnian war, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, ICTY, charged Mladic with genocide, crimes against humanity and numerous war crimes.
In November that year, the indictment was expanded to also include charges related to the attack on Srebrenica in July 1995 and the taking of UN peacekeepers as hostages.
Mladic lived freely in Belgrade for a while after the war but went on the run after Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic was arrested. Mladic then managed to evade capture with the help of Serbian military and security officials until May 2011, when he was detained and deported to The Hague. His trial started the year afterwards.
In November 2017, the ICTY’s first-instance chamber sentenced Mladic to life imprisonment, concluding that he was guilty on ten of 11 counts.
“The defendant’s actions contributed to the crimes so much so that without his acts they would not have been committed as they were,” said presiding judge Alphons Orie.
The court determined that he participated in four joint criminal enterprises. The first one was aimed at permanently removing Bosniaks and Croats from the parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina claimed by Serbs, the second one aimed at spreading terror among the civilian population of Sarajevo during the siege of the city through a campaign of sniper attacks and shelling.
The aim of the third joint criminal enterprise was to eliminate Bosniaks from Srebrenica, while the fourth joint criminal enterprise was aimed at taking UN peacekeepers hostage in order to prevent NATO from conducting air attacks on Serb military targets.
The verdict said that Mladic commanded the attack on Srebrenica in July 1995 in the field, falsely promising Bosniak captives that they would be freed under prisoner exchanges just before they were sent off to be killed.
Between July 12 and 17, 1995, Bosnian Serb forces “systematically killed several thousands of Bosniak men and boys” at “various execution sites in the municipalities of Srebrenica, Zvornik and Bratunac”, in the words of the verdict.
The only count on which Mladic was not found guilty was the one accusing him of genocide in six Bosnian municipalities in 1992.
Explaining that part of the decision, the verdict said that although “a large number of Bosniaks and Croats were killed or severely injured”, the court determined that the victims did not form “a substantial part” of these ethnic groups in the six municipalities and, therefore, the conditions for the criminal act of genocide had not been fulfilled.
‘Master of life and death’
In its closing statement at Mladic’s trial, the prosecution said that he had “a criminal intention to remove Bosniaks and Croats from the territories claimed by Serbs”. The prosecutor described him as “the master of life and death”.
During the trial, military expert Richard Butler said that Bosnian Serb Army officers Vujadin Popovic, Ljubisa Beara and Zdravko Tolimir, who were also sentenced to life in prison in separate trials for the genocide of Bosniaks from Srebrenica, could not have organised the shooting of the Srebrenica captives without Mladic’s approval.
But the defence insisted that Mladic “never ordered any crimes” and had no genocidal intent because he did not sign a written order to kill Bosniaks during the war.
The defence claimed that the war was provoked by the country’s main Bosniak political party, the Party of Democratic Action, which it said wanted “a unitary Islamic Bosnia and Herzegovina with Muslim domination”.
Bosnia’s Serbs simply defended themselves from this aspiration, the defence argued, and Sarajevo and Srebrenica represented legitimate military targets. Some of the defence witnesses insisted that Bosniaks were not forcibly held in detention camps, but voluntarily went to ‘assembly centres’ for protection.
Prosecutors and defence lawyers agreed that Mladic’s forces captured more than 200 members of the UN peace force UNPROFOR in the summer of 1995, but the defence insisted they were prisoners of war.
Prosecution urges 1992 genocide conviction
Announcing its appeal against the verdict, the prosecution asked the court to find Mladic guilty of genocide against Bosniaks and Croats in the municipalities of Foca, Kotor-Varos, Prijedor, Sanski Most and Vlasenica in 1992 – the count on which he was originally acquitted.
The prosecution argued that the first-instance verdict was wrong to decide that Mladic and other participants in the same joint criminal enterprise “did not share a genocidal intention to destroy Muslims and Croats in those municipalities”.
It said the appeals chamber should rule that “a substantial part” of the Bosniak and Croat population in the six municipalities was targeted by Mladic’s forces in 1992, and that Mladic had genocidal intent in these municipalities.
Mladic’s defence argued however that the judges made a series of legal and factual errors at the original trial, and that the defendant’s rights were “grossly violated”.
The defence also appealed against the sentence, claiming that the judges had not considered mitigating circumstances.
Judges removed over bias allegations
The legal process in the Mladic case was slowed in September 2018 when the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals accepted the defendant’s request for three judges to be excluded from the appeals procedure due to alleged bias – Theodor Meron, Carmel Agius and Daqun Liu.
Judge Jean-Claude Antonetti wrote in his decision to accept Mladic’s request that the three judges “appeared biased” because they made certain conclusions relating to Mladic in previous cases in The Hague.
Mladic’s defence argued that judges Agius and Liu had been on judging panels that handed down guilty verdicts in some Srebrenica-related cases tried at the Hague court. It said that Meron chaired the judging panel that convicted Radislav Krstic and Zdravko Tolimir of the Srebrenica genocide, and that these decisions stated that Mladic “intended to kill Bosnian Muslims” and had knowledge of unlawful activities undertaken by his subordinates.
After Meron, Agius and Liu were removed, the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals had to appoint a new panel of judges, who then had to spend a significant amount of time getting properly acquainted with the case.
This week’s appeals presentation will begin on Tuesday with a ten-minute statement by presiding judge Prisca Matimba Nyamba. Mladic’s defence will then have three hours to present its arguments, and then the prosecution will have two hours to respond to the defence’s appeal.
On Wednesday, the prosecution will lay out its appeal against the verdict. After that, the defence will present its response, and then Mladic himself will address the court.
Journalists and the public will not be allowed to attend the hearings due to the pandemic, but they will be shown live online with a 30-minute delay.
A date for the final verdict has not yet been set, but the UN Security Council has been told that it will be delayed until 2021.